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News Navigator: How do you become an astronaut?

Astronaut Norishige Kanai (Mainichi)

Japanese astronaut Norishige Kanai, 41, departed for the International Space Station (ISS) with two other crew members on Dec. 17. The Mainichi Shimbun answers some common questions readers may have about what kind of tests one has to pass in order to become an astronaut.

    Question: Can anyone become an astronaut?

    Answer: It is quite a task to be accepted, but it isn't completely impossible. Kanai made his dream come true by passing the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut selection examination.

    Q: Who can apply for the examination?

    A: Applicants in fiscal 2008 when Kanai took the test had to be a Japanese national that met certain weight and height criteria, have graduated from university or higher level of institution with a degree in a natural science and be able to communicate well in English, among other conditions.

    Q: Can someone who wears glasses apply?

    A: Yes. Applicants are required to be able to see something clearly at least from 5 meters away when wearing glasses or contact lenses. An astronaut's ability to cooperate is also important, as they have to stay in a confined space for a long period of time with others. To measure this, there is an aptitude test for long term stays, which checks patience and cooperativeness through one week of cohabitation with other applicants in a closed facility.

    Q: How difficult is it to pass the examination?

    A: A total of 963 people applied in fiscal 2008, and after document screening and a total of three examinations, only 47-year-old Kimiya Yui and 41-year-old Takuya Onishi passed. Including Kanai, who passed an additional screening that year, only one in 321 applicants succeeded.

    Q: How soon can successful candidates travel to space?

    A: Not immediately. The successful candidates must then undergo training drills for some two years at NASA to learn the necessary skills and knowledge to work aboard the ISS. After completing the program, they are finally certified astronauts. However, even after that, they must continue to train daily, such as polishing their skills operating robot arms and other drills. Yui, the first of the three successful candidates in fiscal 2008 to travel to space, still trained for six years before departing on his first mission. (Answers by Shuichi Abe, Science and Environment News Department)

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